Monday, September 14, 2009

The Two Jakes

I didn't forget about the X-Men. I've actually been thinking about them for a while now, ever since I started writing about them infrequently. More than anything else I would like to thank everyone who had commented on the subject. I began the subject with a simple question - why are the X-Men no longer as popular, when for almost the entirety of the 1990s they were the industry's dominant franchise, and even more, one of the most dominant franchises in the medium's history? I had a few ideas about the subject which I spent some time exploring, but also a number of misapprehensions and suppositions which were subsequently refined or corrected by the comments.

My first mistake - and it's a common mistake, really, so I can't feel too bad about making it - is presuming some kind of continuity between the initial, long 17-year Claremont run and the subsequent years. It's obvious on the face of it that the books changed overnight once the adjectiveless X-Men began and Claremont left the ostensible flagship Uncanny. But the mistake I made was in asking why exactly the books continued to be popular after Claremont left, assuming that the dip in quality would have been obvious to anyone reading at the time - it was to me, certainly, and many others who enjoyed the Claremont run but had little to do with the franchise throughout the following years. The real question is not why people stuck with the franchise when it got "bad". The real question is why Marvel was stupid enough to screw over the franchise in the late 90s and early 00s.

Before 1991, the X-franchise was, while overwhelmingly popular, still not dominant to the degree it would be. There were only three main titles - Uncanny, X-Factor and New Mutants - with two peripheral titles, Wolverine and Excalibur. These last two were very obviously peripheral for one reason: they were printed on better paper and cost fifty cents more than the regular newsprint books. This meant that the books didn't get directly involved in crossovers. I don't know really why this was, but Baxter paper books (was it still called Baxter paper?), because of their price, were never vital components of crossovers or promotions. Perhaps this was one last holdover of the idea that the company's mainline titles should be readily accessible and affordable to the youngest readers. It would be interesting to know why this perception existed, but I know as a reader at the time I could discern a definite difference between the regular $1 Punisher book and the $1.50 Punisher War Journal - they were both Code titles, but the $1.50 books seemed to get away with a bit more than the newsprint line, and existed at a slight remove from month-to-month continuity.

In any event, this distinction disappeared altogether in the early 90s - printing standards rose dramatically, for one. They were already rising before Image started - Marvel had just recently dropped the universally reviled Flexographic process and even the mainline books looked dramatically better. But when the Image guys took charge of their new books and made $1.95 the standard intro price for the company's regular books, it was really only a matter of time before everyone else followed suit.

In the early 1990s, Marvel decided, with good reason, that since nothing sold as well as the X-Men, they would start making as many X-Men books as possible. I can't say how much of an influence Claremont's presence had on the line's relatively conservative growth up to then, but I have always suspected that he exerted a stronger presence than not. Consider that of the four ongoing spinoffs released up to 1991, he had personally launched three of them, and his displeasure over X-Factor created continuity problems that eventually resulted in the line's biggest-to-that-point X-over, 1988's Inferno. But whether or not correlation was causation in this instance, nevertheless, once he left the floodgates opened.

And the funny thing is, once the line started to explode in the early 90s, the fanbase did as well. It was popular before, sure, but the fans who came in with Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and the Saturday morning cartoon didn't care who the hell Chris Claremont was. (It didn't help that in the years immediately preceding 1991, Uncanny had been entrenched on a years-long "X-Men disassembled" storyline that featured the team dismantled, and whole months passed with only third-raters like Forge and Banshee as placeholders.*) Or maybe they knew who he was, but Wolverine as a character was more important than Claremont or even Lee & Liefeld as creators. This was the moment when the line really exploded, and oddly enough it also coincided with the moment when the line consciously pared away amount of influence any individual creator could exert on the line. Suddenly, things became interchangeable. There were a half-dozen top-shelf artists moving between the top titles, but none of them were ever in any danger of becoming marquee names. There were any number of competent writers, but no single writer could be allowed to develop any kind of long-term proprietary interest over the books.

The number one draw was the characters. From Marvel's perspective, the Claremont years were probably no less and aberration than the early 90s pre-Image explosion. Marvel didn't own Chris Claremont, but they did own Wolverine, and you don't get any credit for guessing which property they're more concerned with keeping safe and happy.

So here's what the X-Books were in the 1990s: one big giant ongoing soap-opera, of which no component was more important than the larger franchise. If you bought one, you were practically committed to buying most or all. Even when the titles floundered, even when the stories were ill-conceived, poorly drawn, badly written and even nonsensical, there were so many of the things being produced that momentum was never lost. Being a fan of the X-books was like being a fan of a sports franchise: you liked the X-Men like a Chicago fan likes the the Cubs. Sure, the Cubs never quite make it, but you enjoy the show all season anyway. Sure, some fair-weather fans may come and go as the home team waxes and wanes, but there's still a huge amount of people who stay committed through thick and thin. Sometimes, and this is something that is occasionally hard to comprehend for many, the franchise thrives despite the low quality of many of its constituent books. The reason for this is simple: people get loyal, and this loyalty takes buying X-Men books above the level of a simple capitalistic exchange of money for a good or bad comic and places it instead on the plane of loyalty to an idea. Ask any Red Sox fan circa 2004: there is nothing sweeter than a long-delayed victory, made even sweeter because of the turmoil wrought on the long-suffering fanbase.

In the early 1990s the X-Books were popular enough that even when they started to shed readers at a precipitate rate in the late 90s, the books were still popular enough to almost single-handedly keep Marvel afloat in its darkest hours. (People remembered the Age of Apocalypse, and the memory of how well-received that event was kept the books warm even through Onslaught and Operation: Zero Tolerence.) Seriously, the only possible reason why Marvel still insists on publishing so many X-books despite the general antipathy towards many of the secondary and tertiary titles is long-standing institutional memory - these books sold well during some very dark times, so it stands to reason they should always be remembered with pride by the company.

But if we can return for one second to the sports metaphor: when the fin de siecle hit, things changed. Even when the franchise was at its lowest nadir of quality, the perception of an ongoing, uninterrupted soap-opera narrative continuing without pause since roughly 1991 (or even 1975) remained intact. But then - well. Sports fans will stay with a team through even the most ignoble defeats and embarrassing scandals. They will forgive anything. But the fact is, with the notable exception of the Green Bay Packers, the fans don't own the teams. The owners take the fans for granted ,and with good reason. But there is one thing the owners can do too demolish this fanbase, one breach of absolute trust, one surefire method to demarcate the the end of one era and the beginning of a new, a clear and violent jumping-off point for even the most hardcore.

The owners can always move the team. It's their prerogative.

So, when Marvel decided to push the X-books back to prominence after a rather disastrous few years (despite Alan Davis' generally well-received run, it still culminated in The Shattering, the Twelve and Claremont's disastrous return), they didn't just revamp the line by putting better creators on the books and getting back to first principles. Or, er, they might have thought that was what they were doing, but it wasn't quite the same thing. They decided to do the equivalent of moving the franchise to another city: they set down a line in the sand between the "old" X-Men - you know, the books that regardless of any other considerations had been the company's lifeblood for the previous decade - and the New X-Men.

They could not have made their wishes more explicit: this weren't yer father's X-Men, this was something different. Whether or not Morrison's X-Men were any good is totally besides the point. It was a good book, but it wouldn't have been any less good if it had been a new series a la Astonishing or, contemporaneously, X-Treme. The point is that the "New" X-Men provided a convenient jumping off point for as many readers as it may have attracted. And the new readers jumping aboard with Morrison weren't the type of readers who were going to become fanatically attached to the franchise properties above all other considerations. Marvel's bread and butter in the 1990s was a solid core of fandom who had been trained to disregard creators and individual styles - which is not to say that these were ignored, just of secondary importance, even in the case of monstrously popular artists such as Joe Madureira. Suddenly, all the fans who had suffered through the worst of the 90s were being told that the stories they liked, the characters they loved, weren't going to be the backbone of the franchise anymore. Suddenly, the X-Men weren't the X-Men - the team had been moved. It didn't matter if the new owners pointed out how much better the team was doing in its new stadium across the country - for the fans, it just wasn't their team anymore.

* I have decided that Forge is my second-least-favorite Marvel character, behind only Morbius the Living Vampire. Why Claremont though this character was interesting at all is beyond me, and why he decided to devote a solid year of the book in the 80s to The Adventures of Forge and his Paddy** Sidekick Banshee is simply beyond me.

** I can say "Paddy", my name is O'Neil.

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